Undoubtedly charismatic, John Spence started off his career in the music business in the early 80s as an agent for some of the big names in the industry
After traveling the world and living from one hotel to another, he took a break and got involved in the hotel business in Tenerife with Global Hotel Alliance as a Junior Salesman.
We had the chance to meet him during his many visits to Bali and chit-chatted about how the Karma Group has been in the past two years and what’s next in store. We also got a sneak peek of the life of the business mogul.
What’s New Bali (WNB): Hi and welcome back to Bali! How have you been?
John Spence (JS): It’s been good to get back on track. It’s my second time back on the island since the beginning of the pandemic. For the last two years, I’ve been on lockdown most of the time. It was quite cathartic and positive, as someone who is used to traveling the world and living from one hotel to another. But I am grateful for the time I got to spend with my wife and my children, I was forced to slow down a bit.
WNB: How do you feel about the pandemic now?
JS: At first it was difficult for me because I couldn’t go to many places, but I spent a lot of time in Europe a lot. I’m very lucky I have my own plane, so I can go around Europe easily. In actual fact, there was an amazing upside to the situation, I took my children to Florence and it was the very first day that Italy was opening up since the lockdown. They had a very strict lockdown. I said to my children to never forget this moment, we’ll look this back in history, we could go around in Florence with not one other person. We literally had a private tour of the Uffizi Museum, because there was no one around. It was an opportunity to see places that were normally packed with tourists.
WNB: Can you share with us your daily routine?
JS: Depending on where I am, but if I am in Europe, I would go up very early to adjust my time with Asia which is seven or eight hours ahead. I usually work through the morning and work out at the gym in the morning. I try and work out every day. I try to get all my work done by lunch because my favorite thing in the world is a long lunch. It could be a business lunch, or with family, for me, it’s the main event of the day.
WNB: How do you describe yourself as a businessman?
JS: I am very hands-on in running the company. I live on e-mails. Normally in a day, I would get up to 200 emails, and I would answer them one by one.
WNB: How has Karma Group dealt with the pandemic?
JS: We’ve actually done quite well during the pandemic. Our business model, because of the 45,000 members that we have, protected us a lot. We still have a good cash flow because the members pay annual subscriptions. We took a proactive decision not to lay people off, and we supported all of our members of staff. We also provided extra food parcels here in Bali for other people that were not so lucky. I own the company 100%, so we have no debt or lend money from the bank. We don’t have partners or private equities. We were very able to cope with the lack of new business, in fact, we bought 10 more resorts in Vietnam, England, Scotland, France and others. It was quite positive for us. And now we come into the “new world”, we’ve got a lot of new acquisitions, new programs, so we’re pretty well poised to do well.
WNB: Did the Karma Group experience a shutdown during that time?
JS: Oh, yes, at the very beginning of the pandemic, there was one week where every single one of our resorts, restaurants, and spas goes into shutdown. I was in England, in lockdown, and had to shut down everything all over the world.
WNB: Can we go back in time for a bit to how you first established the Karma Group and what made you decide to use the name “Karma”?
JS: Well, it first began in Goa in 1993. Despite the fact that it was a critically underfunded endeavor, we fell in love with India and began expanding there. A year later, I met a man at a convention who owned a property in Bali and he told me about it. I went to Bali and fell in love, with my first property in Candi Dasa, which we still hold ownership until today. In 1994, it was a different Bali than it is now, but I saw the potential of it being a major tourist destination. We also found that the people are very welcoming and hospitable. So, we just did it.
It wasn’t called Karma at first, but Royal Resorts. I had a bit of inspiration as I was sitting on the beach with my wife, just thinking how Royal was a weak name. I also believe in the concept of karma, although my Indian friend will say I don’t really understand this. I have always believed in the concept of if you do positive things and the Universe responds with positive energy. I was amazed when I had my lawyers check it that no one has really used or branded the name “Karma”, so I said, “let’s do it!” As simple as that, and from then on, we rebrand everything as Karma. And particularly the swishy “K”, a lot of it is not in the word but the “K”, which has become an icon that we use a lot. Then, we were also very Asia-centric, so it was like an homage or respect to the Asian culture and market, also it crosses over between the East and West quite well.
WNB: What are your key successes for Karma Group?
JS: That’s a very hard one to answer. I mean, we have beautiful resorts. One of my favorite resorts is the Karma Kandara Resort. When I bought the land fifteen years ago, I was actually looking to build myself a villa. I hire a Feng Shui expert, to find a powerful piece of land and they found this land. You got the sea, the hills and the ravine, it really has great energy. It has grown organically because we never had a master plan, I just slowly bought all the other land around it. It just grew by itself, and I think that it is the charm. I also own a marvelous chateau in the South of France, a magnificent 18-bedroom chateau that was once owned by Jean Morrow, the actress.
So, I guess my key successes are we have beautiful resorts, a strong Sales and Marketing team, loyal member base which grows rapidly. I think people like what Karma is. I always say we’re not about selling rooms but we’re also selling experience. Customers will get different kinds of experiences with us wherever they go in the world, or whatever they do.
WNB: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
JS: That’s an interesting question. I never really have too much of a long-term strategic plan. I think we will continue to grow globally. We’re developing a lot in Europe, and our next destination is probably an island in the Caribbean. I’d like to see us grow our owner base and intend to remain private, we haven’t got ambitions to list in the stock market.
WNB: What is your proudest moment or award that you have received?
JS: I’ve been proud of many things. A number of years ago I won the Entrepreneur of The Year, which is a great accolade. I was given a fellowship to teach at Yale University, which I’m very proud of because I’m a university dropout. It was an amazing experience. But I think the proudest is because I’m very big on charity and philanthropy, I won an award for Philanthropist of The Year. And we do work with many charities, we work with Bali Life Orphanage in Bali, and we have a school with Crystal House in India. We just got a new program where we took one of our resorts in France and gave it over to around 70 Ukrainian refugees, that we help rescue. I think it’s the ability to be able to help other people. We’re proud of that and that is another aspect of karma.
WNB: Besides working out, what do you do in your free time?
JS: My two biggest passions in life are like Yin and Yang, it’s working out and drinking wine. I have a balance in life, I think everything has to work out. I love wine and have a very good wine collection at home. We also make our own Karma wine, which I personally got involved in. I spend a lot of time in Europe, traveling around the wine area and I’m quite fascinated with the whole process of winemaking, and the uniqueness of different grapes. I part-own a wine club in London, and we just open one in Singapore.
I still quite like music. My guilty pleasure is Trance music, such as Armin van Buuren. Just before lockdown, I went to an Armin van Buurenall-night rave. I think the people there thought that I was there to pick up my child (laughs). I work out every day listening to the State of Trance at a high volume.
WNB: You’ve traveled around the world; what is your dream destination that you haven’t been able to visit? And why?
JS: If I have to pick one, or two, I’ll say Bhutan. It’s on my bucket list, my wife and I wanted to go trekking in Bhutan for many years. I like the idea of a walking holiday in the Himalayas. And I don’t know South America as well as I would like to. I’ve never been to Cartagena, which is on the Caribbean coast, off Colombia. I would love to go there soon. One other place that I wanted to go visit, and almost bought an island in the Galapagos. I’d love to go there and see all the strange animals. I’m very fortunate to have been to the places that I wanted to go to.
WNB: Lastly, what is the future of Karma Group?
JS: As I said before, we intend to keep acquiring resorts, and new members. And we have our newest resort, which I should say we’re very excited about, we’ve acquired a cruise ship on the Nile, it goes between Luxor and Aswan. We are providing our members with experience, they can go and see The Valley of The King, and the Tomb of Tutankhamun. Those are the sort of things that I like. We’ll keep delivering experiences, developing new members, opening Beach Clubs, making wine, and drinking it on the beach.
WNB: I think we’ve covered quite a lot over the past hour! It was fun and we highly appreciate you spending your time with us, John. Hope we are able to catch up with you again on your next visit!
JS: Thank you, you’re welcome to visit the new beach club anytime. Take care!